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Promentis Turns to Montana Researchers to Boost Neuro Drug Tech

Xconomy Wisconsin — 

When Promentis Pharmaceuticals recently sought to beef up its intellectual property portfolio, the Milwaukee startup didn’t turn to a coastal research university, as one might expect. It looked to Montana.

Promentis, which is developing drugs that modify brain chemistry to treat central nervous system (CNS) disorders, inked an exclusive licensing deal this month with the University of Montana. The two have been research partners for about five years, with Promentis sending its compounds to the university for testing and University of Montana professor Richard Bridges, a biochemist, consulting for the pharma company, Promentis president and CEO Chad Beyer said.

Bridges and his colleagues have been conducting research for more than a decade into “system xc-,” a molecular mechanism that helps keep brain chemistry in check by trafficking cystine and glutamate, two amino acids, in and out of nerve cells. That mechanism is believed to falter in a variety of neurological disorders, as well as certain brain tumors, which have been the focus of much of Bridges’ work, Beyer said.

System xc- is also the same target that Promentis has been studying. The company aims to target that mechanism with its experimental compounds and either dial up or down its activity. By doing so, and balancing levels of glutamate in the brain, Promentis might be able to treat CNS disorders like schizophrenia, autism, Parkinson’s disease, and certain rare diseases—although it hasn’t been determined which rare conditions Promentis might go after, Beyer said.

The licensing deal takes the two organizations’ partnership to the next level. Beyer declined to disclose specific terms, but the agreement gives his company exclusive rights to compounds developed by University of Montana researchers that hit system xc-. That includes an existing portfolio of more than 200 compounds, plus any future related compounds the university’s researchers might develop, Beyer said. In exchange, the university would receive royalty payments if any of those drugs make it to market.

“Promentis’s chemical library will grow tremendously with this licensing agreement,” Beyer said.

The University of Montana was the right partner not only because some of its researchers have been focusing on the same target as Promentis, but also because of its experienced, “world-class team,” Beyer said. The school said it has invested in its biomedical science programs, particularly in neuroscience, over the past decade. The decision to strike a deal with the University of Montana “was not driven by geography or my love of skiing,” Beyer joked.

Promentis is one of the few novel pharmaceutical developers to pop up in Milwaukee in the past decade. It was co-founded in 2007 by Marquette University biomedical sciences associate professors David Baker and John Mantsch, and its original technology was licensed from Marquette and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The company has also designed and synthesized its own proprietary molecules.

Promentis has raised more than $7.4 million in equity funding, grants, and loans, including a $2.9 million Series B round in January 2014.

The next big expenditure will be moving Promentis’ lead drug, Pro-4051, into clinical trials. The company hasn’t yet picked which disease it’ll go after first, but it intends to meet with FDA officials in the coming months, with the intention of seeking the agency’s approval within a year to begin its first human study, Beyer said.

“We’re excited to bring these compounds closer to humans,” he said.